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No hurries

Expert advice on letting kids enjoy their childhood

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For sure, parents want what’s best for their children.  But because of their anxieties, competitiveness, and need for control, moms and dads sometimes make their kids’ lives more stressful, difficult, and complicated.  For example, they send their toddler to school even if he isn’t ready yet, or they coerce their child to take up a tiring and time-consuming after-school activity that he has no interest in.

That’s why in his recent talk titled “The Syndrome of the Hurried Child,” held at the Escaler Hall of Ateneo de Manila University in Quezon City, developmental and behavioral pediatrician Dr. Francis Xavier Dimalanta reminded parents and educators that childhood was not a race.  It should be savored, not rushed.

“Childhood is not a race to see how quickly a child can read, write, and count.  Childhood is a small window of time to learn and develop at the pace that is right for each individual child,” said Dr. Dimalanta, who practices at the St. Luke’s Medical Center in both Quezon City and Bonifacio Global City, Taguig.

A 2008 study by family science professor Sandra Hofferth of the University of Maryland defined a “hurried” child as having “three or more activities or more than four hours devoted to activities within a two-day period.” Children who are hurried or pressured to grow up fast, Dr. Dimalanta warned, miss out on important achievements and it may cause serious problems later.  They might exhibit troublesome behavior during adolescence, or internalize problems such as depression, difficulty getting along with others, anxiety, crying, stuttering, or trouble sleeping.

Aim for balance

This doesn’t mean, however, that enrichment or extracurricular activities should be avoided altogether. Of course a child can join a club, play a sport, learn a musical instrument, or take art, acting, or dance classes. In fact, some kids thrive and excel with a highly driven schedule.

The key is to find balance, explained Dr. Dimalanta, one that allows children to reach their potential without pushing them beyond personal comfort limits while allowing personal free time.  Free unscheduled time is essential for creative growth, self-reflection, and decompression.  He cited Hofferth’s Measure of “Balance:” one or two activities only, total weekly time of less than four hours over two diary days, and activities that do not strain family members (both child and parent) beyond their capacities.

Advocating involvement but not hurriedness, Dr. Dimalanta said it is good for the young to join activities in their community, with their peer group, and with their family as this promotes balance and pro-social behaviour. According to Hofferth’s research findings, children who were focused or balanced in their activities had the lowest levels of stress and the highest self-esteem.  Uninvolved children, on the other hand, were most withdrawn, socially immature, and had the lowest self-esteem.

Let them play

Kids being kids, they will always learn best through play, stressed Dr. Dimalanta.  It is the antidote to hurrying.  In play, children engage in problem solving, test out ideas, ask questions, and build new understandings.

Age-appropriate activities are a must, that’s why he recommended:  symbolic play for the young child; games with rules for the school child; and intellectual games for the adolescent.a

Provide young children with mostly unstructured activities, with one or two structured. Choose a couple of activities that they are really invested in and will most likely maintain.  For older kids, focus on their areas of interest.

In addition, he counselled parents to take care of themselves as stressed moms and dads cannot raise stress-free children. They should also value each period equally and contribute appropriately to each stage of their child’s life.

His parting message is to let a child be a child to fully enjoy his childhood.  This means letting him…

NO STRESS

Be better, less stressed parents with these solutions from developmental and behavioral pediatrician Francis Xavier Dimalanta, MD, FPPS, FPSDBP:

• Be flexible yet firm.a1

• Help your child enjoy non-competitive activities and hobbies just for the fun.

• Get over the anxiety that you are not doing enough.

• Explain to your child that they are not defined by what they do.

• Keep in mind that children need time to play, experiment, rest, and figure out who they are.

• Listen to your child. Don’t interrupt.

• Understand and recognize the uniqueness of each situation and your child.

• Respect your child’s right to do things differently from you.

• Participate in your children’s decision making.

• Describe your coping style.

• Take stock of your own stress level.

• Take care of yourself and model this to your child.

• Reduce activities and give kids time to play.

• Be alert to behavior suggesting stress (body aches and other frequent physical complaints, prolonged periods of intense sadness or irritability)

• Draw the line [on an activity] when the child refuses to cooperate, has physical complaints, and he/she is pressured by parents or peers

• Set family time and set limits.